Saudi Arabia’s rights record scrutinised by UN in wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

November 12, 2018

UN Member States raise issues including capital punishment, freedom of expression, women’s rights and the war in Yemen as part of Saudi Arabia’s third Universal Periodic Review

On November 5, 2018, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record was examined by UN member states as part of the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This marked the first time that the country has undergone such an appraisal since 2013.

During the review, 96 states made recommendations on a wide range of topics including the death penalty, counter-terrorism legislation, freedom of expression and association, women’s rights, the ratification of international treaties and the war in Yemen.

Death penalty and corporal punishment

Over 20 states, including Argentina, France and Georgia, called on Saudi Arabia to establish a moratorium on the death penalty with a view of its eventual abolition. A number of countries placed particular emphasis on the need to bring the imposition of capital punishment in cases concerning minors to an immediate halt. This follows 14 recommendations made on the topic during Saudi Arabia’s second UPR, all of which were rejected by the state.

Similarly, Switzerland reiterated its previous call for Saudi Arabia to abolish the use of corporal punishment, while Montenegro recommended that laws allowing for the stoning, amputation and flogging of children be repealed.


Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Norway and the United States recommended that Saudi Arabia bring its counter-terrorism legislation into line with international standards in order to ensure that it allows for freedom of expression and association. In particular, states referred to the Cybercrime Law (2007) and the Anti-Terrorism Law (2017), both of which contain vaguely worded provisions that criminalise an array of peaceful acts.  

Additionally, the United Kingdom and United States recommended that Saudi Arabia allow journalists and diplomats to monitor trials at the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC). While this court was initially created to try cases of terrorism, in recent years it has been used increasingly to sentence human rights defenders and political activists to long prison terms – or even to death – in secret hearings that do not meet fair trial and due process guarantees.

Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly

At least 27 states raised concerns about the extrajudicial killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with many reiterating the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ call for the launch of an impartial and effective investigation.

Some states, such as Estonia and Greece, took the opportunity to urge the Saudi authorities to take measures to ensure that journalists and human rights defenders can exercise their right to freedom of expression and opinion without fear of harassment or reprisals. Others, including Iceland, called for the release of all those detained solely for the exercise of these rights.

Belgium recommended that Saudi Arabia bring the Law on Associations and Foundations (2015) into line with international standards. While this law was adopted in response to recommendations from the state’s previous UPR, it places undue restrictions on the registration of independent human rights organisations. 

Women’s rights

Another key theme of Saudi Arabia’s UPR was women’s rights, with over 20 states recommending that the kingdom abolish the male guardianship system. Under current laws, Saudi women are considered to be minors and remain under the supervision of male guardians, who have the legal power to decide on an extensive range of issues affecting a woman’s everyday life. Several states, including Cyprus and France, also called for laws to be amended to ensure that Saudi women married to non-Saudi men can pass on their nationality to their children.

Ratification of international human rights treaties

At least six states, including New Zealand, the Czech Republic and Mexico, called on Saudi Arabia to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This follows similar calls made during Saudi Arabia’s second UPR, where the Kingdom rejected 11 of the 15 recommendations on this topic.

A number of states, including Denmark and Estonia, recommended that Saudi Arabia ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPT-CAT), while Japan and Honduras urged the Kingdom to become a party to the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (UNICPPED). Saudi Arabia rejected both recommendations on acceding to these conventions during its 2013 review.

The war in Yemen

Seven recommendations were made regarding Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen.

Australia and Germany recommended that Saudi Arabia take all necessary measures to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access. Lichtenstein called for the protection of civilians through precautionary measures to prevent the indiscriminate use of force, while Canada and Haiti called on the Saudi authorities to work with all implicated parties to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Similarly, Iceland urged Saudi Arabia to bring its military operations to an immediate halt and to implement the recommendations made by the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen.

Finally, Poland urged the Saudi government to “create legal mechanisms that allow for full and impartial legal inquiries into the human rights violations committed by the coalition while conducting operations in Yemen”.

Saudi Arabia’s third UPR outcome report will be adopted at the 40th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council in March 2019. As part of this process, the state will announce which of the recommendations from the third cycle it supports and which it rejects.

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